Monday, January 29, 2018

Saint Patrick

by Jonathan Rogers
2010 / 132 pages

My mom was born on St Patrick's Day, and that was reason enough to check out Jonathan Roger's short, engaging biography of this Irish legend.

St. Patrick (385-461) is famously credited with driving the snakes out of Ireland. Other Patrick legends are equally impressive, and just as erroneous. But while legends abound, facts are hard to come by. As Jonathan Rogers explains, the most substantive information we have about Patrick comes from just two documents, which are the only pieces of writing we have from the man himself.

The first, The Confession of Saint Patrick, lays out his theological beliefs, even as he shares the story of his capture and escape from the Irish raiders. The second, The Letter send to the soldiers of Coroticus, was a plea to a British raider to return the newly baptized Irish Christians he had stolen and taken off to slavery. These two documents are included, in their entirety, as appendices in the back of this slim volume, and amount to 29 pages.

Rogers uses the remaining 100 pages to put Patrick's writings in a historical and cultural context, with perhaps the biggest eye-opener being that with the Christianization of the Roman Empire, people of the time saw outside the Empire as being outside the Church. That's why Ireland hadn't been evangelized to this point. It was outside the Empire, so it almost unthinkable that the people there could still become Christian.

But it wasn't inconceivable to Patrick. My takeaway from this book is that what made Patrick special was his zeal for lost people that others thought irredeemable.

I will add, though, that I don't think Patrick's a saint we really need to know more about. So, even as I think this is a really good read, I'd put a number of other biographies ahead of it. We only have so much time, after all, so if you don't know much about saints such as Martin Luther, Isaac Watts, or Corrie Ten Boom, those would be better people to start with.

Pick it up at Amazon.com here and Amazon.ca here.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Winston Churchill

by John Perry
158 pages / 2010

Churchill had been dead more than 50 years now, but if the man himself is gone, the myth is enjoying a revival. Churchill has made recent appearance in the big screen productions Churchill and Darkest Hour, and has also shown up on the small screen in the British drama Crown. Of course, we all know the camera distorts, and it's not just the ten pounds it adds, so if you want a more accurate understanding of the British Bulldog, why not turn to  print instead?

Most Churchill biographies are the size of dictionaries, and since that exceeded my interest in the man I was pleased to discover John Perry's Winston Churchill was of a more reasonable size. Since it's part of Christian publisher Thomas Nelson's 16-book Christian Encounters biography series, I wondered if that meant Churchill himself was Christian. But, no, sadly it isn't so.

It turns out that while Churchill knew his Bible, and would sometimes speak of God – particularly in rousing speeches to the British public – he thought that, if there was a God, then God owed him heaven. So no, Churchill wasn't Christian.

As Perry makes clear, Churchill had a spiritual type of fatalism. Early on Churchill came to understand that no man is in charge of his own fate; the fact that one man lives through a battle and another dies has little to do with the men themselves. So when Churchill survived a number of dangerous encounters in his youth, he grew in his conviction that he had been destined for something great. Destined by Who? The answer to that question wasn't all that pressing to Churchill. But this conviction gave him confidence, and even a certain sort of humility... but it didn't result in worship. Churchill seemed to be the greatest being that Churchill knew.

CAUTIONS

As a rule I don't recommend (or even review) books that take God's name in vain – why would I praise someone who is mocking God?

This is especially true when it comes to fiction, however, a case can be made for exceptions when it comes to history. In detailing Churchill's agnostic attitude towards God (and his son Randolph's especially arrogant view) it would seem unavoidable that some of Churchill's blasphemous quips and comments would need to be shared. But while these quotes do seem necessary, this is an instance where less is more, so we can be grateful with the restraint in which Perry shares them.

CONCLUSION

Why, then, is Churchill being profiled in this Christian series of biographies? Because we can see God's hand on the man. From birth God was preparing him to be the right man, for the right time. And He so arranged things that Churchill was in the right place too, as the war time prime minister. This was all beyond Churchill's arranging, but looking back, we can see how God laid out events, and how He can use whomever he will because, whether Christian or agnostic, all are a part of His plan.

That's the real reason to read this biography – it is a treat to see how God has acted in history to preserve His Church. Churchill was a great man in ways, but he was also a petty one in others. Had he lived today, there might even have been unfavorable comparisons made between him and our least favorite politicians: he blew through taxpayer dollars to fund his own high living, and he was known to indulge in "alternative facts" in his writings. At a different time, this great man might have been run out of politics. That's the lesson here – the greatness of this great man can't be found in the man himself. Instead what's on display is God's gracious providence in providing for us the response we need to Hitler's Third Reich.

Winston Churchill is a quick, eye-opening read that both my wife and I enjoyed. I would recommend it to anyone, teens and up, interested in learning more about one of the pivotal figures of the 20th century.

Pick it up at Amazon.com here, and Amazon.ca here.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

A Guide to Discussing Assisted Suicide

by Blaise Alleyne and Jonathan Van Maren
104 pages / Life Cycle Books

I hope that many who are reading this are wiser than I have often been, but I wonder if, as was the case for me, some pro-lifers found it difficult to oppose euthanasia as passionately as we oppose abortion. How do you help someone who doesn't want to be helped - who wants to die?

Of course, that emotional tension is exactly parallel to the hard cases that are typically presented to pro-lifers in the abortion debate. Just as in that debate, the key is to find the central issue. With abortion, the main question is, "Who is the unborn?" There are only two options. If the unborn is not human, there can be no justification for 'its' surgical removal, but if the unborn is human, then there can be no justification for killing  him or her. Similarly, the crux of opposition to  euthanasia is the question, "How do we help those who are feeling desperate enough to want to kill themselves?" There are only two options: either we prevent suicide, or we assist it.

That's where Alleyne and Van Maren's book comes in. These two men with extensive experience in the pro-life movement break down the debate in terms of that central question. They start with framing the debate
  • how to dialogue effectively;
  • how to define the three possible positions (the split position, the total choice position, and the pro-life position); and
  • how to approach the issue of suicidal despair (referencing Victor Frankl's insight from his experience in a concentration camp that "D = S - M," or despair = suffering without meaning).
The second chapter explores the first of those three positions. The job of pro-life apologetics is to show the inconsistency of the split position, which suggests that we should prevent some suicides while assisting others). The authors give ways to counter the reasons often used to justify some suicides, given by the acronym QUIT. They show that arguments based on Quality of life, Unbearable suffering, an Incurable condition, or a Terminal prognosis are fallacious, largely because they are based on ageism and ableism. In the same way as arguments against abortion bring out "two-year-old Timmy" to show that we should not be killing human beings at any level of development, arguments against euthanasia show us the healthy 19-year-old to help us realize that it is wrong to assist the suicide of anyone, of any age or level of health - because as the authors put it, "suicide is a symptom [of despair], not a solution."

Chapter 3 deals with those who are (sadly) willing to be consistent and advocate total choice for all who desire to be assisted in ending their lives. The only response is to insist that the suicidal need love even more than they need argument.

The fourth chapter shows how dangerous it is to accept either the split or the total choice position, because they have always involved a slippery slope toward more and more assisted killings, they reduce the willingness to prevent suicide, and they undermine the morale of everyone who works in any facility that provides suicide assistance.

Finally, the authors show the pro-life position. It is not mere vitalism, and so allows for
  • the refusal of burdensome treatment, as well as
  • the use of pain medication, even when that risks hastening death, as long as the intent of such medication is to alleviate pain rather than to kill.
The pro-life position also offers positive responses to the suicidal: psychological health resources, pain management, palliative care, and dignity therapy. The authors end with two pleas:
  • "Let death be what takes us, not lack of imagination." In other words, may no-one ever have their death hastened because we refuse to imagine how we may show more compassion.
  • "As people who believe in the dignity and value of every human life, it is our responsibility to.... persuade people that assisted suicide is wrong."
Alleyne and Van Maren admirably give us the tools to carry out that responsibility. Given the urgency of the push toward euthaniasia in both Canada and U.S., more of us should be reading this book.You can order it from Life Cycle Books (including the option to buy it in bulk for your pro-life group or circle of friends at greatly reduced prices).

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Steal Away Home

Charles Spurgeon and Thomas Johnson:Unlikely friends on the passage to freedom
by Matt Carter and Aaron Ivey
290 pages / 2017

This is two biographies in one, about the little know relationship between the "Prince of Preachers" Charles Haddon Spurgeon and a former slave, Thomas Johnson.

The men couldn't have grown up in more different circumstances. Spurgeon was in the United Kingdom, and establishing his reputation as "the Prince of Preachers," while Thomas Johnson was still a slave in the America. Johnson's first heard Spurgeon's name mentioned when the preacher's sermons and books were being burnt by slavery-defenders in the South. They didn't like the strong and clearly biblical way that Spurgeon had been denouncing slavery. 

And then emancipation came, and Johnson was finally free, he too, became a preacher. And with his heart inclined to the mission field in Africa, he eventually ends up at Spurgeon's College where the two meet and become friends. Perhaps one reason they became friends was because Spurgeon struggled throughout this life with depression, and his young friend Johnson knew something of that too, borne out of his despair as a slave. As true Christians brothers, they are a help and a companion to one each other.

One caution

Now, this while these two men are both real, I should note this is a fictionalized account. That means that while the broad details are all true, and much of the dialogue is taken from the men's works, this work should only be enjoyed for the general impression, not the specific details, it provides of their friendship.

I'll give one example of how this mix of fact and fiction does, on the one hand, stay very true to reality, but on the other hand, can give a bit of an inaccurate impression. When we read of how Spurgeon proposes to his wife-to-be, he comes off as quite the Prince Charming with all the right words, the perfect thoughtful present, and just the right timing. However, the authors have compacted the evening's events from events that took place over more than the one occasion. The facts are true, but it's an alteration of the timeline for brevity's sake, to keep the story flowing.

Conclusion

This is just a wonderfully readable book. And it is attractively put together too. You aren't supposed to judge a book by its cover; but it's wonderful when a good cover can give a reluctant reader just the encouragement they need to get started.

I'd recommend this to anyone with an interest in church history, or in knowing more about the American South during slaver and after, or who enjoy historical fiction or biographies. It's a well done book, so if you are a reader, I think you'll love Steal Away Home.

You can pick it up at Amazon.com here and Amazon.ca here.